Pacific NW coast mask and labrets

Haida people, Haida Gwaii, Canada, 19th century

[b]Left:[/b] Collected by Frederick Dally 1862–1870. Founding collection; 1884.84.76–.78[br][b]Right:[/b] Collected and donated by Charles Harrison in 1924; 1924.33.17Left: Collected by Frederick Dally 1862–1870. Founding collection; 1884.84.76–.78
Right: Collected and donated by Charles Harrison in 1924; 1924.33.17
Here is a selection of crafted wood, bone, and pottery lip-plugs or 'labrets' (from the Latin labrum meaning 'lip' or 'edge'). The realistic mask, which was carved before 1868 and depicts the wife of the artist, shows how a labret would be worn in the lower lip.

Labrets thought to have been worn exclusively by women of the Northwest Coast including those of the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples. Usually inserted into an incision below the lower lip, the labret was a distinctive personal ornament, and highly visible mark of noble status and political influence as well as beauty. However, labrets were not without their problems, resulting in difficulties in eating and drinking, as well as occasional periodontal disease and tooth loss, so for this and other reasons modern Haida women no longer wear them.

Labrets were the subject of much fascination, discussion and speculation among 18th- and 19th-century explorers, traders, missionaries and ethnographers. Many sources say the lip was pierced on the occasion of the girl's first menstruation and a small ornament inserted. This was one of several events that accompanied a girl's puberty ritual including isolation away from the main group and the prohibition of certain foods.

The size of the adult labret was associated with how many children the woman had as well as the hierarchical status of her kin group. For example, the red-coloured pottery lip-plug shown here was worn by a woman who had had several children. The most elite women wore the largest labrets, sometimes made of expensive materials such as copper or abalone shell.

Haida society is based on a matrilineal system of descent and is divided into two main groups, Eagle and Raven. All Haida men or women are expected to marry a member of the opposite group. Since the mouth, as the locus of speech, was considered a powerful place on a woman's body, a woman could through her words either mediate or agitate relations between clans of each group.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England